UCU Needs a Fighting Strategy

With UCU's main congress taking place this week, casualised university staff consider the failings of the union's strategy, and call for a more confident approach.

14 min read

UCU’s Congress 2022, which begins on Wednesday, will inevitably be defined by certain key decisions taken at the Special Higher Education Sector Conferences (SHESCs). These decisions followed the General Secretary’s email on 13th April, in which she recommended to all members of the union to drop our ‘Four Fights’ and USS Pensions disputes until at least 2023/24—proposals that were once again rejected by both SHESCs. Following from this, a wider discussion over union strategy has rightly opened up.

The most recent HE ballot results were below what we should have been able to achieve, in terms of numbers of branches hitting the regressive Tory Trade Union Act’s 50% threshold. 36 branches hit the threshold for action on the Four Fights, down from 64 in the Autumn term; and 24 branches hit the threshold on the USS dispute, again down from 44 in the Autumn. Nevertheless, this still represents a comprehensive ‘yes’ vote for strike action of 74% on the Four Fights and 80% on the USS of those who voted.

It’s hard to think of any other democratic exercise in our society in which a 74%-80% ‘yes’ vote on a 46%-49% voter turnout would be considered anything other than a landslide victory. Nonetheless, the result reduces our leverage—especially in a context in which our national leadership seem unable to articulate clear demands, have blocked any reballots in April/May that might have increased our mandate, and are preventing branches from accessing strike funds or meaningful legal support when faced with punitive pay deductions.

It is in this context that we are now headed into a marking boycott over the Summer term—action that has similarly been delayed and restricted to the point that many branches have already missed all or part of their exam periods.

In this article, we summarise how some within our union are pursuing a damaging ‘demobilisation’ strategy that marginalises the concerns of casualised members, and has contributed to the mismanagement of the disputes through 2021/22. It is not too late to make gains in 21/22 or to learn lessons for 22/23 and beyond, but we need to recognise that two bureaucratic factions within our union (UCU Commons, formerly ‘Grady4GS’, and UCU Agenda, formerly ‘IBL’), together with an inexperienced General Secretary, have already done a huge amount of harm—and will continue to do so until we have a clear consensus around a winning strategy for these disputes.

We do not write this as a blanket endorsement of the UCU Left faction, which has already been criticised by other left wing groups. We agree with the call for a broader left formation in our union, which we see beginning to materialise through recent rank-and-file efforts whih we have supported, including the election of independent left candidates to the NEC. Here, we wish to focus on a full accounting of the failures in our current leadership.

Some within our union are pursuing a damaging ‘demobilisation’ strategy that marginalises the concerns of casualised members and has contributed to the mismanagement of the disputes through 2021/22.

Learning the lessons of 2021/22: how the General Secretary gave up on the Four Fights before we started

The #CoronaContract campaign was founded in 2020 as thousands of precariously employed staff lost their jobs during the pandemic. Our model branch motion highlights that 70% of research staff and up to 30% of teaching staff are on casual contracts, thousands of whom lost work or were sacked during the pandemic. Our members have endured massive hardship, and many have been forced out of the sector while employers generated massive surpluses, with workload and equality consequences for everyone else. But this story seems to have been missed by the national leadership of our union, who, up until the Summer of 2021, and despite significant mobilisation from members, did almost no campaigning work and made little mention of the Four Fights (our dispute over casualisation, workload, inequality, and pay) in national communications. Grassroots campaigns like #CoronaContract and Pandemic PGRs were left to fill the gap.

Our members have endured massive hardship, and many have been forced out of the sector, with workload and equality consequences for everyone else. But this story seems to have been missed by the national leadership of our union.

This meant that members had a limited awareness of the Four Fights as an active campaign, or how it related to our national pay claim, going into 2021/22.

In a top-down branch delegates ‘briefing’ in August 2021, where members had no speaking or voting rights, the General Secretary asked members to consider the Four Fights as a longer term “aspirational” dispute that could not be won in the short term, and to focus instead on a “quick win” on the cuts to USS pensions. What this “quick win” actually referred to was never made clear.

Putting aside the ethical implications of prioritising pensions (which primarily concern more secure staff) over the Four Fights (which concern the most precarious staff in HE), this perspective was completely out of touch with the reality of both disputes. As the employers’ swift rejection of our ‘compromise offer’ on pensions demonstrated, there was in fact no “quick win” or compromise possible on USS, which needed a serious ‘no cuts’ campaign from the outset (a campaign which was, and remains, official UCU policy). By contrast, there were and are straightforward and winnable demands within the Four Fights claim—low hanging fruit, even—that any competent leadership should be delivering upon. These include limits to the use of exploitative 9-month contracts, an agreement to abide by employment law on making staff with 4 years continuous service permanent, and a basic, inflation-related pay rise.

Unsurprisingly, the recommendations of the General Secretary were rejected at the September 2021 Special Congress (SHESC), which instead called for a ballot on both disputes. But the core contradiction remained: a grassroots movement ready to deliver for our members, and a General Secretary, backed up by two bureaucratic factions, who lacked confidence and was unable to establish what a win looked like.

Instead of pulling together and acting on the overwhelming mandate of the September Congress, the General Secretary and her supporters began what could only be described as a ‘demobilisation’ strategy. Acting under the belief that we were not ready for a national dispute, the 4 week ballot period mandated by SHESC was cut to 2.5 weeks, presumably so that the General Secretary could use the additional week and a half to launch a new aggregated ballot strategy which would have seen those Autumn ballot results scrapped. At 5pm on 5th November, the General Secretary used a live webcast to announce our ballot results. Instead of notifying employers of action, she called on branches to spend the following week consulting their members on the idea of scrapping the ballot and commencing a new nationally aggregated reballot some time “next year”. This was to be followed by a national Branch Delegates Meeting (BDM). HEC did not meet to consider the ballot results until the 12th November, after this consultation had been completed, and employers were not notified of action until the following week, commencing 15th November.

Unsurprisingly, the General Secretary’s plan to give up and start again was overwhelmingly rejected by branches at the subsequent BDMs, many of whom had just delivered record voter turnouts after a gruelling get-out-the-vote period that they did not want to repeat unnecessarily. This would be the last time in this dispute that the General Secretary would call a BDM with voting rights.

Despite this defeat for the General Secretary, cutting the ballot window to allow for the consultation had already damaged our turnout. We were just 250 votes short of having 16 more branches hit the turnout threshold on the USS ballot, with even more branches narrowly missing out on the Four Fights. Reps at all of those branches would now have to work through the Christmas break trying to win a mandate second time round. In the end, only 7 branches managed to win a mandate on the USS, and 9 on the Four Fights.

Having been unsuccessful both in blocking the disputes in September, and in getting the ballot scrapped in November, the General Secretary and her supporters in the UCU Commons and UCU Agenda (who typically voting as a bloc at HEC and NEC—but also act by circumventing these structures) have since set about minimising our leverage at every opportunity.

Without any democratic input from branches or HEC, the General Secretary emailed members on 23rd November to inform us that the key element in the ‘Action Short of a Strike’ (ASOS) component of the dispute—the refusal to reschedule missed classes—was to be pulled. This made the already limited 3 days of action in December all but tokenistic, as members were being asked to sacrifice three days’ pay only to make up the work for free in our spare time the following week. Worse, the 23rd November email came more than a week after the notification of action had been sent to employers, meaning that many branches first found out that the ASOS had been pulled not from their union, but from their employers.

By this point, it was surely clear to employers across the sector that our national dispute did not enjoy the support of the General Secretary or the national infrastructure of UCU. There had still been no clear communications on what elements of the pay claim we were seeking to win, nothing on what the General Secretary’s “quick win” on the USS looked like, and no plan of action whatsoever for the Spring term had been drawn up.

Spring of 2021/22: the General Secretary gives up on the USS… then writes off 2022/23

These events led into a Spring term in which the strike action, owing to the lack of any wider industrial strategy, closely followed HEC dates (19 January & 25 February). At these meetings, officials from the General Secretary’s office would put forward a range of recommendations that went to very tightly contested votes, with action passing or failing based on who was in the room and how independents voted on the day. The March strike dates, for example, were decided by a 19-18 vote, which was taken at a point when the mover of a critical motion (a disabled comrade) had temporarily lost their connection to the meeting.

No more BDMs were held during the Spring, and striking branches were frozen out of the decision-making process from this point on. The BDMs were replaced by demoralising top-down webinars in which the General Secretary played down the disputes, and officials explained (just prior to the Four Fights strike dates) that the focus of negotiations had moved on to 2022/23—implying that the current strike action was largely pointless. The disputes were ‘decoupled’ in January, then ‘recoupled’ in February. ‘Rolling regional action’ was announced by the Head of Campaigns on 28 January, without any real mandate, and then dropped on 25 February. Furthermore, the strategy throughout the Spring was hampered by the reality of ballot mandates which meant the action would run out—and require successful reballots if it were to continue—before reaching the end of the academic year. While this was not an insurmountable barrier, it called for an escalation plan with substantial emphasis on reballoting and strategising for continuing action. All of this further points to the dysfunction at the highest levels of our union: while the UCU Left faction had proposed, and won, the Autumn ballot timing, this timing never fed into a longer-term strategy, and ultimately resulted in almost no strike dates in the Autumn.

In the Spring, UCU notified employers that we would not be rescheduling missed classes, following which some branches were threatened with punitive pay deductions of 25%-100% on an ongoing basis. Having promised branches legal advice in the Autumn, and having advised branches to challenge employers on the legality of such deductions, the General Secretary’s office then informed branches that they would not be provided with any legal support, and advised them to drop the legal response to the deductions. At a national briefing, branches were told to instead pursue additional local strike dates as part of an ‘industrial response’—but the very next day, branches were then told that that was not correct either, and that the proposed industrial response would not be possible unless branches called separate local disputes.

All of which speaks to a desperate lack of planning on key questions—planning which branches had been requesting for months.

Most branches managed to push back successfully on these threats under their own auspices, be it via. generating bad publicity, or through collective grievances, with Queen Mary UCU going so far as to privately commission their own legal advice. But once again, a clear signal had been sent to employers that there would be no nationally-coordinated response on punitive deductions. This has no doubt influenced employers’ thinking on the current marking boycott.

A clear signal was sent to employers that there would be no nationally-coordinated response on punitive deductions. This has no doubt influenced employers’ thinking on the current marking boycott.

Multiple branches put forward open letters calling for Special Congresses or BDMs throughout February and March, at which a proper industrial strategy could be established. The #CoronaContract campaign hosted a grassroots meeting of striking branches on 21st February, which was attended by approximately 80 reps from 40 branches. At this and subsequent meetings, the frustration with the leadership of the union among rank-and-file organisers has been clear. With the expiration of the ballot mandate approaching, employers had taken only 48 hours to reject the “compromise offer” on USS, and there were still no clear plans for reballoting members, or a marking boycott. On 22nd February, in an all-members email announcing our defeat on USS, the General Secretary wrote that we would “start to prepare for a marking and assessment boycott” in the summer. These preparations never happened. Instead, going into the 25th February HEC, UCU Commons and UCU Agenda had once again tabled motions to drop the disputes. These motions would once again fall—but this time very narrowly.

Following the 25th February HEC results, we finally moved to ballot our members on extending the mandate, but by this point the ballot window, which could have been running throughout the Spring term, had been cut down to just 3 weeks, most of which fell outside of term time. Once again, this went against the democratically-agreed timescale of 5 weeks voted through by HEC.

As the ballot was ongoing, the NEC (which is the national body making funding decisions) met. Unlike HEC, which had a narrow majority for UCU Left and independents, NEC held a narrow majority for the UCU Commons and Agenda at NEC. In what looks like a tit-for-tat moment of factionalism, they voted against prior precedent and froze strike pay, so that members would not be paid for the action HEC had voted through at the previous meeting.

Annoyingly, striking branches had been asking the question on strike pay for weeks prior to the NEC meeting, and had been ignored. Once the results of the meeting came out, it became clear that this silence had been intended to prevent members from campaigning or lobbying on the issue running into the March NEC. The consequence of this was branches only finding out that strike pay was being cut while we were stood on picket lines, and mid-GTVO.

Unsurprisingly, with the cut-down ballot window pushing into the Easter vacation, and reps being overstretched by simultaneous action, the ballot turnout dropped, and fewer branches were able to deliver a 50% turnout. Having lost the votes to call off the disputes at HEC, and with no plan beyond the ballot period, the General Secretary’s office accepted calls for special sector congresses on the Four Fights (20th April) and the USS (27th April), which would then decide next steps.

The General Secretary’s 13 April email, and a fighting alternative for action

After she had spent most of 2021/22 arguing at multiple national meetings for a more modest strike strategy, claiming that a Summer 2022 marking boycott would be more effective, the General Secretary subsequently emailed all members with a 40-page strategy document recommending we now call off the marking boycott, and drop any plans for further action until 2023/24.

Aside from the lack of anything that could meaningfully be described as a “strategy”—the plan looked like a repeat of what was proposed in 2020, when we began a year of surveys and consultation—we should be clear that this email will have been seen by employers, and will have seriously damaged what leverage we may have had on the back of the Spring ballot.

This announcement from the General Secretary had no input whatsever from striking branches, reps, or members—with the possible exception of the UCU Commons faction, who had a lengthy blog post on the plan, co-authored by 8 of their members, out by 11am the morning following the 5pm announcement.

It’s probably no surprise that the General Secretary’s proposals fell at both sector congresses on the 20th & 27th April. It’s probably also no surprise that, once again, the action plan set out by both sector congresses was subsequently delayed and watered down by HQ. Employers were not notified of action for several weeks, no planning had been put in to coordinate action or raise funds, and there had been no identification of what a (possibly more modest or compromise) win might look like on either dispute.

As we write, several branches are taking matters into their own hands and developing local claims on the Four Fights and USS (see, for example, Durham on the Four Fights, or Glasgow on the USS). Whether you agree with this localisation of a national dispute, or whether such claims go far enough, they do show that employers were and are ready to move, and it’s a testament to branches’ willingness to fight that, while the national leadership of the union appears to have abandoned the disputes, branches are using local mandates to leverage concessions from employers and continue the struggle.

Longer term, and looking into 2022/23, any strategy to win needs to address the failings of this year and make sure they are not repeated.

It may seem obvious, but it is worth underlining the fact that our employers don’t take a break when our action fails. On the contrary, they are aiming to launch further attacks upon pay, working conditions, and pensions. The latest news about spates of redundancies and ‘restructuring’ at a long list of universities, while shocking, simply demonstrates the ramping-up of practices that are already widespread in the sector. Putting our heads in the sand won’t help us salvage our jobs. If we cannot put together proper disputes, we will continue to be vulnerable to the depredations of our employers, who will simply continue to degrade work conditions in the sector. None of the reasons to strike have gone away simply because the broader strategy has been absent.

It is worth underlining the fact that our employers don’t take a break when our action fails. On the contrary, they are aiming to launch further attacks upon pay, working conditions, and pensions.

Moreover, we need to address the contradictory claim, put forward by the General Secretary and the UCU Commons faction, that in order to mobilise in the long term we need to demobilise in the short-term (or, in the case of UCU Agenda, demobilise permanently). We need to be able to effectively counter any moves to kill off live disputes via. HEC, NEC, and the national officer team; including actions such as cutting ballot periods, delaying notifications, demoralising members, and neutering our leverage.

To do all of that, we clearly need a better grassroots approach to industrial strategy. We need longer ballot periods, and we need Head Office to enact the UCU policy of sharing live Civica data with branches, provide us with ballot lists, and to process additions, exclusions, and ballot queries in good time. We then need to be able to articulate our demands (rather than dismiss our own disputes as unwinnable), identify our points of weakness, and actually communicate with and empower local branches throughout the dispute.

We cannot afford to abandon our casualised members. The work needs to start now.

Some of these points can be mandated via. upcoming Congress motions. Motion HE7 calls for a coordinated strategy for 2022/23 and an extended October to January ballot period; and motion 19, from Dundee, calls for the democratic decisions of our union to be upheld and for censure of the General Secretary. Until we elect a new fighting leadership, however, we will need to keep holding our union to account and demand that motions passed by congress are properly enacted.

If we start doing this, we can begin to make serious breakthroughs—but we cannot afford to abandon our casualised members until the appearance of some imaginary death star in 2024. This work needs to start now, and it must lead to a proper plan for 2022/23.

If you are in the University sector, and you agree, write to us at [email protected] to join our mailing list and help us build the fighting strategy we need to win these disputes.


Corona Contract (@CoronaContract)

Corona Contract is a rank and file union group fighting for the rights of casualised university and college staff during the pandemic and beyond.